Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 27

House of Dracula (1945)
“House of Dracula” has some interesting ideas. As the seventh “Frankenstein” movie, the fifth “Dracula” film, and the fourth in the “Wolf Man” series, some new ideas had to be injected. Like traveling mad scientist Dr. Niemann in “House of Frankenstein,” “House of Dracula” links together all of these divergent monsters with Dr. Franz Edelmann. Unlike Niemann, Edelmann is a really nice guy and determined to help anyone that comes to his clinic in Visaria, even if they happen to be a vampire or a werewolf. He even plans to actually heal his hunchback assistant… Though his hunchback assistant is played by the beautiful Jane Adams, which probably makes a difference. Anyway, both Baron Latos and Larry Talbot wind up in the doorway of the clinic, asking the doctor to help with their unique conditions. The movie presents scientific explanations for each of the monster’s strife. Dracula is a vampire because of blood parasites. The Wolf Man’s transformations are caused by pressure on the brain.

Despite setting forth these interesting, new ideas, the movie falls into many of the clichés and formulas of the series. Dracula asks the doctor to help him but doesn’t seem particularly interested in changing his way. Right out of the gate, he sets about seducing Edelmann’s nurse, the lovely Martha O’Driscoll, this time using hypnotism instead of a fancy ring. When the doc decides the way to solve Dracula’s problem is with routine blood transfusion, the vampire pumps his blood into the normal man. The Count’s motive for doing this isn’t expounded on. Not long afterwards, his casket is forced into the sun and the vampire fades away in a hugely anticlimactic method. None of the monsters get much screen time. The Wolf Man is isolated to two sequences. Lon Chaney, still sporting his pencil-mustache from the Inner Sanctum flicks, is as suicidal as always. Frankenstein’s Monster barely shows up, spending most of the movie on a slab, until the climatic rampage. Disappointingly, some of that footage is actually reused from “Ghost of Frankenstein.” Lionel Atwill even shows up, practically reprising his “Son of Frankenstein” character, once again. None of the monsters interact and the movie’s script feels hopelessly thrown together. Despite the interesting ideas present, the filmmakers didn’t put much effort into distinguishing this one from the previous monster rallies.

Even then, there are several notable moments. Dracula seems to influence O’Driscoll while she plays the piano, a rather atmospheric scene that recalls “Dracula’s Daughter.” Talbot dives off the cliff near Edelmann’s castle. (Visaria is apparently on the coast.) The doctor goes after him, leading to a fun moment of the Wolf Man stalking the coast caverns. Dracula hypnotizing the hot hunchbacked nurse is shown by her half of the frame becoming blurry and indistinct. Once injected with Dracula’s blood, Edelmann develops into a Jekyll / Hyde style mad scientist. The film’s best moments revolve around this. Onslow Stevens gives a good performance, hamming it up nicely when playing mad. His first transformation leads into a fantasy sequence involving scenes not actually in the movie, such as what Jane Adams looks like without the hump or the doctor leading the revived Frankenstein Monster on a rampage through the town. All Edelmann actually does is strangle a wagon driver. The lead-up to that death is the film’s sole moment of genuine suspense. When Talbot realizes he actually has been cured at the end, the look on Lon Chaney’s face is relevatory and once-again suggests the actor’s underutilized skills.

Over all, I like “House of Dracula” just a little better then “House of Frankenstein,” perhaps because it’s not as riddled with continuity errors. Besides Baron Latos’ and Larry Talbot’s unexplained resurrections and the Monster and Niemann’s corpse magically teleporting to the coast, things are fairly smooth sailing. It’s a shame the film never does anything exciting with its interesting ideas. It could have been a proper, unique send-off to the company’s monsters. Instead, as the last serious outing for the UniMonsters, it’s a somewhat disappointing finale. [5/10]

House of Horrors (1946)
There’s something effortlessly charming about “House of Horrors.” The script is fairly predictable. Marcel, a struggling sculptor, has a potential sale destroyed by a critic’s ravaging review. In a moment of suicidal despair, he walks over to the docks with the intent of throwing himself into the water. Instead, he winds up rescuing the Creeper, a man with wildly exaggerated facial features and a bad tendency to shatter women’s spines with his bare hands. Naturally, the vicious serial killer is eternally grateful to the starving artist. I wonder if he’d be willing to brutally murder any mean-spirited critics that offended our protagonist? There’s also a subplot involving a feisty female art critic, a hunky hero who spends the whole movie painting a babe with a tennis racket, and some police and detectives floating around too.

So why is the movie so endearing, despite its formulaic script? First off, the film actually has a pretty interesting look about it. When the action isn’t set inside Marcel’s studio apartment, critics’ offices, or other residential abodes, it’s set on the streets of Manhattan. While I doubt the filmmakers intentionally shot the movie on soundstages in order to create an intentionally pulpy, almost dream-like tone, that’s what happened nevertheless. With its urban setting, complete lack of supernatural elements, and frequent images of bad men in fedoras casting shadows on walls, once again this horror film feels a bit more like a noir. That tone extends to the story as well. Despite the spunky lady art critic and her good girl art illustrator love interest ostensibly being the heroes of the story, the focus is squarely on Marcel and the Creeper. Marcel is really no better then the murderer, since its obvious very soon he knows what his friend is. (And is possibly intentionally manipulating him.) The Creeper is never given any Freudian excuse for his desire to kill. Guy just likes strangling people to death and dislike people being afraid of his hideous features. It’s actually fair to read a bit of gay undercurrents into the movie, since Marcel repeatedly calls the Creeper’s face “beautiful.” These two oddballs and outsiders seem to accept each other up-front, at least until the end anyway. The movie is effective as a horror film as well. The scene of the Creeper stalking his first victim makes nice use of shadows and sound. I love how her cigarettes tumbles out of her mouth once she gets a good look at the guy. The later scene of the killer claiming the blonde model is surprisingly bleak and brutal. The final stalk sequence, which shows Rondo Hatton and Virginia Grey starring at each other through a book shelf, is nice too.

Of course, the real reason anyone talks about this movie is because of Rondo Hatton. The guy is a cult figure more because of his life story then his movies. A World War I veteran and sports journalist, Hatton suffered from acromegaly, the same condition that gave Richard Kiel and Andre the Giant their memorable appearances. After years of extra work, Universal tried to turn Hatton into a horror star with this film, following his break-out role in the Sherlock Holmes thriller “Pearls of Death.” Sadly, Hatton died before either of his solo films could be released. Rondo is frequently criticized for his acting. No doubt, he didn’t have much talent. All of his lines are delivered in a gruff monotone. Still, there was a certain naturalistic charm to Rondo’s acting. The Creeper character is in line with a number of murderous, deformed, simpleton characters. He fits in with “Of Mice and Men’s” Lenny, Jaws from the James Bond films, and Marv of “Sin City.” At the very least, Hatton has one really good moment, at the end when he inevitably turns on his master. You can read a mixture of appropriate grief and murderous rage on his face. (And he was good enough to inspire the Classic Horror Awards.) The rest of the cast helps a lot, especially Martin Kosleck’s turn as Marcel and Grey as the snooping critic.

The simplicity of the film’s themes help the movie resonate. A frustrated artist striking out at an uncaring world is a classic, as are freakish outsiders finding kinship among themselves. The story would be another good candidate for remake. A new version could expand on those themes and dive further into the seedy side. How about Crispin Glover in the Marcel part? Though the natural pick for the Creeper, Mathew McGrory, is all ready gone. You’d probably want to change the title too, since none of the horrors happen in an actual house. [7/10]

The Brute Man (1946)
A prequel to “House of Horrors” that explains the origins of the Creeper character. Turns out he was originally a promising college athlete, who loved his best friend’s girl. Following a cruel science prank, Hal Moffet was exposed to poison gas, mutating a totally different, fairly unconvincing actor into Rondo Hatton’s unforgettable mug. No explanation for his sudden tendency to strangle people to death, beyond a repeated mention of his “short temper,” is given. On the run from the cops because of all the murderin’, the Creeper meets and befriends a blind woman who is, naturally, not repulsed by his appearance. That’s pretty much it as far as story goes. The movie has trouble expanding that premise to even a brief, hour-long runtime. A lot of time is filled with police room banter, repeated shots of officers talking into radios, and the flashing newspaper headline cliché.

“The Brute Man” is the red-headed step-child of Universal horror. Rondo Hatton died before the movie could be released and the studio was uncomfortable releasing the film so close to his death.  Combined with a new studio wide mandate to halt production of B-rated horror, Universal sold the movie off to a Poverty Row distributor. If you’re inclined to believe that Rondo’s entire acting career was somewhat exploitative, “The Brute Man” is definitely the nadir of that exploitation. In real life, Rondo Hatton was a promising college football star whose exposure to mustard gas in WWI was the believed cause of his actually genetic acromegaly. Despite not turning into a murderous madman in actuality, the movie is content to provide no further explanation for the Creeper’s madness. While “House of Horrors” had some atmosphere and thrills, “The Brute Man” is bland in execution, with flat direction and an underwritten script.

Even then, it has a moment or two worth recommending. Like Paula the Ape Woman before him, the Creeper solidifies his standing among the Universal Monsters. It’s the budding romantic relationship with the blind pianist that motivates the monster’s killings in the film’s latter half. The Creeper only wants love and understanding, for people not to reject him based on appearances alone. Even if the rest of the script is thin, that theme resonates deeply with any monster fan. Rondo, even if his delivery is still awkward, gives a better performance this time. The script gives him more to do. I suspect, if his illness hadn’t ended his life early, he could have developed into a decent actor. Jane Adams, from “House of Dracula” sans hump, plays her blindness convincingly.

I’m not the first one to speculate that a film about Rondo Hatton’s life would be a worthy effort.
He lived an interesting life and, though brief, left a lasting impact on the horror genre. Even if the films aren’t all that good. [5/10]

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The east coast has been threatened with a devastating hurricane this weekend, an appropriately Halloween-named “Frankenstorm.” So what were JD and I doing? Standing in line in front of our local Apollo Theater for a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Locally, it looks like the storm won’t hit until Sunday. Saturday night was clear and mild. This is the third year we’ve done the Rocky Horror Midnight Experience, though only the second time we’ve gotten to see the movie. The theater was less crowded then in 2010, only a little more then half-full. The crowd was still pretty decent, shouting along, dancing, having a lot of fun, as you’d expect. However, maybe it was just me and my lack of sleep, but it seems the excitement peaked a little early. The oddly poetic image of toilet paper and toast filling the air above us, silhouetted against the screen, a little pass the hour point, seemed the natural conclusion to the night. It’s also fair to say the shadow cast this year wasn’t as good as 2010’s. They weren’t bad. Everyone was enthusiastic and in the spirit. Janet was very busty, which I didn’t mind, and the actor playing Rocky was very popular with the ladies. (And seemed to be smuggling a roll of quarters in his speedo.) Overall, everyone just seemed a little less in to it.

Anyway: The movie itself. Is it actually any good? That’s an important question. From a critical perspective, it remains divisive. I found myself feeling a little bored with the picture this year. It’s certainly an entertaining film. The music is roundly excellent. The cast is extremely good, with everyone inhabiting their roles fully, to the point were this film has defined most of the cast’s careers. Tim Curry is obviously the stand-out performances but this year I found myself admiring Barry Boswick’s comedic timing. The production values are pretty good. Most of the jokes land successfully. In particularly I love Charles Gray’s deadpan narration and the long sequence of name-calling. There’s enough general weirdness in the performances and delivery to add some appeal.

But from a writing perspective, I found myself wondering. The pace meanders quite a bit and several of the songs don’t actually contribute to the plot. The latter half of the second act basically lumbers around until we get to the floor show at the end. Dr. Scott doesn’t actually contribute much to the story. Frank is the most popular character in the film even though, you know, he’s actually a textbook psychopath, right down to the charisma. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself, manipulates and hurts the people around without pausing, not to mention murdering someone with a pickaxe because they glanced at his boyfriend. The real clue that he’s an asshole is that, despite doing all this awful stuff, he still considers himself the hero of the movie. “I’m Going Home” is basically Frank telling us that he’s the victim, of an uncaring world where he doesn’t fit in. He imagines an audience cheering and applauding for him, in a blatant act of self-deluded narcissism. The movie acknowledges this by killing him off at the end. The ending, which leaves our lead trio collapsed on the ground, worn out by their embrace of hedonism, says that attitude of sexual wantonness is bad. Even though the rest of the movie basically goes on about how this is awesome and you squares need to be less uptight, maaaan. The themes are jumbled and uncertain is what I’m saying.

It’s possible the people who made the movie were too high to notice this disparity. And, considering the general mood of the midnight screenings, maybe the viewer is suppose to be as high. Perhaps Richard O’Brian is saying that you should accept yourself and be open with your sexuality but don’t go overboard with it. Anyway, I enjoy the movie, flaws and all. It’s certainly an intriguing mess of pop culture references, rock music, and sexual confusion. [7/10]

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